What Makes a Good Headshot for Actors?

Viola Davis portrait by headshot photographer


Headshots: Different Goals, Different Photos


So, you’ve worked with a headshot photographer! Now, the age old question for actors. What makes a good headshot?

First, most important, it must actually look like you.  I mean it must REALLY look like you.  This is not the “airbrushed-and-I-am-perfect” you.  This is the “you” that is actually going to walk into the audition room.  It can be the “beautiful” you,  but it must be the real beautiful you.  You will NOT disappoint the audition room if you really look like your photo.


After Working with a Headshot Photographer, How Do You Choose?


Here is how you can avoid the frustration of trying to find that one perfect headshot:

Use a few different headshots for different goals—and put them online. Different goals, different headshots.


Put multiple “looks of you” on your website and online actor profiles (Actors Access, etc.), and that will be your own subversive way of suggesting to others the multiple ways that your looks can change.

The pics that you lead with for TV vs. indie film vs. theater vs. commercials are all potentially different from each other.  And what you lead with for comedy vs. drama is probably different too.

So instead of trying to put all of these contradictory elements into one single headshot—impossible!— your online presence is going to be where you suggest the range of looks that you are capable of creating for various types of roles.


From Headshot Photographer to Casting Director to Film/TV Director: Everyone Has a Different Aesthetic


Film director Steven Soderbergh may prefer a naturalistic off-the-streets look for The Knick or any of his films—he loves to use unknown faces—in order to enhance believability of the story. Film director Michael Bay prefers bombshell beauty to sell to the masses for Transformers. So, I think it’s fair to say that you can’t come up with one headshot that is going to satisfy everyone’s needs.

Hence, get a few different looks and offer them all online.

When I was casting, I was often surprised to find that many directors, producers, and writers can’t quite imagine a makeover on an actor. Remember that. So…you have to feed it to them in your photos.  Someone had to have real vision and trust that Charlize Theron could be made-over and become a serial killer prostitute in Monster.  So, again, offer up varieties of ways that you can look.


Contradictions That We Can’t Ignore


For every example, there is an opposite example.

Take note of the following:

  • Too many looks can confuse people on your marketability.
  • Some want the role spelled out for them.  They want to see that you can do EXACTLY what they are looking for.
  • Many decision-makers want the actor to look like their idea of “beautiful,” no matter what the story is about. It just depends on the marketing goals of the project or the aesthetics of the creators. Blockbuster films tend to go for “mass appeal” in its leads, right? (Of course, not always! This is a generalization I am making just to hit the point that sometimes, “beauty” matters.) This is one of the reasons that I think Orange Is The New Black was such a breakout—those actors were based not on an idea of beautiful women in prison, but about true character nuances. All types, ages, sizes, colors.
  • Judgements of your pics are in the eyes of the beholder. What you think is beautiful might be different than me. Impossible to guess what that is as times change, examples shift.


More Tips for Headshots


  • In general—and really, very much a generalization—photos tend to make people look younger than they do in person, so be prepared for that possible misrepresentation.  It has to do with the lighting and the makeup. So if you want to “look your age” then make sure your photographer knows this
  • Have one “neutral” professional headshot that you feel awesome about. You will want one that feels good to be the shot that can get you seen for ANY project.  So, not devoid of feeling, but not over-expressive in any one emotional note or character type. Aim for thoughtful and open. A sparkle of life in your eyes should still be there! Having a one “neutral” go-to on hand might be useful when you quickly need to submit a headshot and you are only allowed one.


Makeup Tips to Share With Your Headshot Photographer


  • Hint: If your headshot photographer is collaborating with a makeup artist for your session, make sure you communicate your goals!
  • For my women, women-identifying, and anyone who wears makeup: To really look like you, keep it natural in your makeup.  (I know this is hard for some of us!)
  • Don’t go heavy with mascara, eye liner, and lip colors. Keep it real.  Take the example of Laura Linney: natural beauty, always, in every role. If you want to do film, indie film or character work, keeping it real is especially important.
  • For “beauty” roles, still keep in mind the allure of “seemingly natural beauty.” Some people call this the “no-makeup makeup” look.
  • Can you have a stylized image with heavy mascara in the midst of your pile of images—but of course! You can include one or two amongst others.
  • If the headshot is geared towards commercials, then perfect skin is probably going to be important, but again—consider that you have to walk in the room looking like the person in the photo, so be sure to sync that up.


Submit the Best Headshot to Get an Audition


Have several current options easily available for submitting appropriate photos to appropriate roles.

Cater your submission—if you’re limited to one pic—with the image that best inspires the role. Submit a quirky smile for comedy or funny best friend. Submit serious and soulful for an indie drama.

And lastly, aim to feel good about your photos! That will help you hold your head higher with confidence when you submit and then walk into the role.

You are ready—go forth and create the imagery with your headshot photographer that inspires others to build films and TV shows off of you!




More Headshot Tips: 

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